Mystery over missing remains of seven biggest Japanese war criminals finally solved

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Koa Kannon temple in Atami was previously rumoured to be one of the places where the war criminals' cremated remains were interred - and became an shrine for nationalists as a result - AFP
Koa Kannon temple in Atami was previously rumoured to be one of the places where the war criminals' cremated remains were interred - and became an shrine for nationalists as a result - AFP

A decades-old mystery surrounding the location of the remains of Japan's most senior war criminals has finally been solved after researchers discovered declassified information about their disposal after World War Two.

Documents unearthed in the US show that after Hideki Tojo, Japan’s wartime prime minister, and six other high-level leaders convicted of war crimes were hanged in December 1948, their bodies were cremated and the ashes placed into seven urns.

They were then put onto a plane in Yokohama, flown out to sea and dumped at an unspecified point, according to declassified files in the US National Archives and Records Administration. The discovery was made by a Japanese academic, according to Kyodo News.

In one document dated January 4, 1949 - 12 days after the seven men were secretly hanged at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison - Major Luther Frierson writes: “We proceeded to a point approximately 30 miles over the Pacific Ocean east of Yokohama where I personally scattered the cremated remains over a wide area”.

The secrecy and extra precautions taken by the Allies who occupied Japan after Tokyo‘s surrender in September 1945 was to avoid creating any graves or memorials to the nation’s controversial former leaders that could be turned into rallying points for nationalists, much like what was done with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

As a result, there have long been conflicting reports about what happened to the remains of the men who led Japan into war in Asia and then expanded the conflict to encompass the United States and European powers.

Yuko Tojo, granddaughter of Japan's wartime leader, General Hideki Tojo, poses with a photo of her grandfather outside Yaskuni Shrine in Tokyo - Robert Gilhooly
Yuko Tojo, granddaughter of Japan's wartime leader, General Hideki Tojo, poses with a photo of her grandfather outside Yaskuni Shrine in Tokyo - Robert Gilhooly

There have been suggestions that Tojo’s remains were secretly interred at Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo, considered the last resting place of the spirits of millions of Japanese who died in service, or in the rural Koa Kannon temple, 90 miles southwest of Tokyo, which has become a point of pilgrimage for a new generation of nationalists.

There have also been rumours that the ashes were scattered over the grounds of a horse racing track in Yokohama that was taken over by the US military, dumped in a car park elsewhere in the city, or tipped into Tokyo Bay.

“I had no idea what happened to the remains [of Tojo] as there was no discussion of the matter," Hidetoshi Tojo, the great-grandson of the wartime leader, told Kyodo. “It is disappointing that we cannot pinpoint the exact location in the Pacific.

“It was made difficult to know the exact location by scattering them in the sea and it is my understanding that the US military was making a thorough effort to ensure that they could not be deified."

“If the remains were returned to nature, that is better than being abandoned somewhere else,” he added.

A career military officer, Tojo was an outspoken advocate of a pre-emptive attack against the US forces at Pearl Harbour and British and other European colonies in the Far East, including Hong Kong and Singapore.

Named prime minister in October 1941, he stepped down in July 1944 as the tide of the conflict turned against Japan.

Former Army General and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (centre) at a military trial in 1946
Former Army General and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (centre) at a military trial in 1946

After his arrest, Tojo was tried for a range of war crimes, including waging wars of aggression, war in violation of international law and ordering, authorising and permitting the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.

Historians estimate the Japanese military was responsible for the deaths of as many as 5 million civilians and prisoners of war during the two years and nine months that Tojo was prime minister as a result of massacres, starvation, forced labour and human experimentation.

Millions more servicemen were killed during the same timeframe.

Tojo was the most famous Japanese leader found guilty in the Tokyo trials, with six other military leaders similarly found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

At the time of his arrest - when he made a botched suicide attempt - an unrepentant Tojo told Japanese reporters, "The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous. I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers. I wait for the righteous judgement of history. I wished to commit suicide, but sometimes that fails."

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